Document-Based Lessons and Historical Thinking Skills

A Proper Family ReunionThe topic of my document-based lesson project was the period of Reconstruction as viewed through political cartoons published in the time period from 1865-1877.  In the lesson, students are asked scaffolding questions which help them engage with the historical thinking skills of contextualization and sourcing. Using the images I chose, students will be able to develop an understanding of how Americans in different parts of the country may have felt about policies enacted during Reconstruction, and about the period as a whole. I intentionally chose certain cartoons that depicted vivid images and which reflected various opinions of Reconstruction.

In the initial stages of developing this lesson, I had the idea that I might want to focus primarily on political cartoons for this lesson. There are so many available from this time period, and so many with such vivid imagery that allow students to engage in analysis with very little background knowledge. As I began to collect documents for this lesson, I was a bit worried that I did not have enough content, and that I might need to include other types of documents. However, because Reconstruction is such a large topic, and because there are so many different lenses through which it can be understood, I found that it was easier to stick with the medium of political cartoons, and engage with them more deeply. In this way, students get the opportunity to engage with the controversy of how to rebuild after a terrible and destructive war that changed multiple aspects of society.

In secondary history classes, topics such as Reconstruction are rarely discussed; if they are, very little time is spent uncovering the controversy and complexity of the time period. However, Reconstruction is a period in America’s history that began the current stream of history. By understanding the period following the Civil War, students can begin to see how America’s history has shaped its present. For instance, certain racial policies enacted during Reconstruction played a major role in Americans’ later perceptions of race and racial constructs. It isn’t an easy time period to untangle, certainly another reason why it rarely is at the secondary level. However, giving students primary sources to discuss and explore give them an effective entry point into the time period and the topics surrounding some difficult issues of Reconstruction.

At the end of this particular lesson, numerous different activities could be assigned. In the creation of this lesson, I wanted to leave the final product/assignment open because there are so many creative ways to assess understanding of the cartoons and the ideas and values they present. When I discussed possible options for closing assignments for this lesson, various suggestions were given. My favorite assignment idea was to have students create their own political cartoon using similar themes and imagery from the cartoons that they explored in the lesson. This could be done either about Reconstruction issues or even current events. This would allow students to make connections across topics and time periods.

Image Credit: Library of Congress

Title: A proper family re-union

Creator: Oscar Henry Harpel

Date Created/Published: 1865.

Summary: A biting cartoon showing Confederate president Jefferson Davis in league with both the devil and Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold. Arnold and Davis stir a cauldron of “Treason Toddy,” a brew into which the devil drops miniature black slaves. The devil holds a pitchfork and gloats, “I feel proud of my American sons–Benedict and Jeff.” Davis, dressed in a bonnet, shawl, and dress (see “The Chas-ed “Old Lady” of the C.S.A.,” no. 1865-11), explains to his fellow traitor, “Well, Arnold, the C.S.A. [Confederate States of America] are “done gone” so I have come home.” Arnold greets him, “Welcome, Davis! Thou shalt be warmly received by thy father.” At the cauldron base, marked “1865,” lie two skulls, marked “Libby” and “Andersonville,”–no doubt intended to represent Union victims of the two notorious Confederate prisons Libby and Andersonville. Copperheads writhe on the ground. Near Davis’s feet are a bag of “Stolen Gold” and a valise marked with his initials and “C.S.A. 1865.”

Flipped Lessons, Changing Roles

flipped classroom

Prompt: Students were asked to design a flipped lesson and then write a blog post that showcases their flipped lesson and reaction to designing it. 

During this week’s class, I had the opportunity to create a flipped lesson using the TedED Lesson generation program. I created my lesson around a video from the YouTube channel Crash Course American History, hosted by John Green. Find my flipped lesson here.

The TedEd Lesson tool is a great resource. It allows teachers to either choose their own video from other sources (including TED talks and YouTube videos) and generating questions/discussing feeds, all with a useful statistics function to track the students that have watched the video and answered the questions.

TedEd is definitely a resource I will use in the future. I think thing about flipped lessons that I am most skeptical about is making sure that students are actually doing the tasks and learning the content at home. However, TedEd solves this problem by giving teachers the statistics for their lessons and see which of their students have completed it. The goal of completing these lessons at home is to introduce the content to students and get them thinking about the types of topics they will discuss in class. This also opens up class time for authentic activities and allows teachers to check-in with students, rather than the traditional model of delivering content to students in class and expecting them to complete a check-in assignment for homework. The biggest strength of flipped lessons is giving teachers more time to interact with students in completing assignments, and makes it the responsibility of the student to learn the content and ask questions when needed.

As we discussed in class, flipped lessons change the role of both the teacher and the student. For this reason, many teachers are skeptical about implementing flipped lessons into their instruction. However, changing this classic understanding of what a teacher’s job is and what a student’s responsibility is allows for greater classroom involvement and student motivation, which are crucial in creating valuable learning environments.

Image Source: Library of Congress

  • Title: Schenectady, New York. A section of a blueprint reading class at the Oneida School
  • Creator(s): Bonn, Philip, photographer
  • Date Created/Published: 1943 June.



Digital History: Using Tech (Effectively) in the Classroom

digital history

Prompt: Write a blog post in response to our class on digital history. 

In this week’s class, we played with various methods to incorporate technology directly in our classrooms. We used tools such as Twitter, GapMinder, nGramViewer, and NYTimes Chronicle to explore different ways to present information to students and engage them in research and information-seeking. While we were working with these tools, it wasn’t difficult to think of ways that I could incorporate these tools into lesson plans, such as having students search different names for classifying people in the NYTimes Chronicle tool to analyze changes (see my example here). However, whenever I think of incorporating technology into my lessons, I always try to ask myself whether or not the addition of technology is effective, or if the lesson could help students learn just as well without the use of technology.

I think, when it comes to technology, teachers like the idea of incorporating it into their lessons, but often get stuck with the same sorts of technology, always using the same resources and never really analyzing whether or not the technology is helping students. For this reason, I was skeptical of our use of Twitter in this class. I’ve seen various teachers use Twitter as a tool to encourage students to summarize their ideas “in 140 characters or less.” This is great when it comes to some lessons/content, but doing it after every lesson can get monotonous. I don’t think this is Twitter’s most effective use in the classroom.

One thing that I highly valued in our class-time engagement with twitter was the session in which we participated in a live chat. We had the opportunity to share our ideas and learn from other teachers across the country. It was a great lesson in collaboration, not to mention self-validation (when teachers across the country favorited or re-tweeted my comments, it made me feel that I had some good ideas, even though I may not have had much classroom experience).

I think there might be a way to use Twitter (real Twitter, and not just the Twitter format) in our classrooms as well. Giving students the opportunity to share their work and seek help or comments from people they might never meet could be a great way to engage and motivate students. In many ways, allowing them to share their best work with someone other than a teacher or family member gives them perspective they might not get otherwise, and shows them that they can be proud with a certain product. I don’t think this necessarily requires Twitter or other social media. But I do think their is value in using those types of digital information gathering and sharing to inform how we create our lessons.

Image Credit: Library of Congress

  • Title: Washington, D.C. Public Schools – classroom scenes and school activities
  • Creator(s): Johnston, Frances Benjamin, 1864-1952, photographer
  • Date Created/Published:  ca 1899

For One-to-One, Start at Square One

Teacher and class

Prompt:  Assume you have your first full time teaching job and the principal tells you that you’ve been selected to pilot the  “1 to 1 Project.”  What are your thoughts about the opportunities and challenges that  presents?

Talk to a group of teachers, and bring up one-to-one classrooms, and you will probably hear lots of opinions. Five years ago, their response would have been overwhelmingly negative. Ten years ago, probably just laughs. Opinions have changed drastically, but not more since one-to-one has become a reality in many schools. Technology is overwhelmingly available, even if not every classroom is equipped with the latest web-enabled electronics. Often, students have access to technology of their own; they are constantly multi-tasking and learning and socializing, all things that are vital to their development as adolescents. Yet, in many one-to-one classrooms, those that have greater access to technology outside the classroom are not necessarily better off than their peers with more limited access. In such classrooms, students of all ability and intelligence levels too easily fall behind because of their teachers’ assumptions that they know how to use the technology they have been given.

In my limited experience volunteering in one-to-one classrooms, specifically social studies classrooms, teachers generally prefer to begin implanting technology in the classroom by assigning research projects. Students choose or are assigned a topic and are sent to the broad reaches of the internet to find information that they will later present in a PowerPoint, style mandated, of course. The assignment seems simple enough. However, it is not uncommon to find that students do not know how to navigate the infinite repository of information that is the internet. They type the name or title of their topic into their chosen browser, pick the first source, often a semi-reliable wiki source, and copy/paste the information into their presentation. Not only is their research flawed, so, too is their presentation. An assignment that the teacher intended to spread out a vast amount of information and share it with the class just became a waste of class time, and required even more time to re-teach the content.

Suggested solution? First, teachers need to make sure that their students know how to conduct effective research, the methods and strategies that will help them be successful. This not only means how and where to search, but also, what kinds of questions they should ask of their topic and their sources. Sourcing and contextualization are key in any kind of historical research. These should be step one.

Step two is creating an intentional research question for students to answer. Guiding questions and scaffolding are exceptionally useful when encouraging students in a specific research direction. Students need to know exactly what they should be looking for, and what the end product should be if they are to be successful in their endeavors.

Finally, students need to be introduced to what might be called the best practices of presentation. Presentation is as much for the presenters as it is for the audience. If the audience has not learned something by the end of the presentation, it has been for naught. Therefore, it is important that students know the best ways to teach content so that their peers will remember it. This is all about teaching to the brain, and using educational neuroscience to their benefit. This does not require much background, except the kinds of visual representations that are most meaningful.

In the end, there is more to one-to-one classrooms than research and presentations. But if teachers don’t start at square one and teach the building blocks of using that technology, students will be no better off than when they started.

Image Credit: Library of Congress

Title: Elementary school children standing and watching teacher write at blackboard, Washington, D.C.
Creator(s): Johnston, Frances Benjamin, 1864-1952, photographer
Date Created/Published: CA 1899